After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.
The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.
Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise
The new era Memphis Grizzlies are taking this streamlined ideal to a borderline absurd degree. Clearing forward Rudy Gay’s salary and 40.8 percent shooting mark from the team’s roster last winter helped pare down the squad’s playbook and steel its focus, but in a Western Conference that is growing and bounding, and with the miles piling up for some of the team’s particulars, you have to wonder if just a small spate of bad luck in dancing school could relegate last year’s Conference finalists to fighting for a playoff spot in 2013-14.
The defense remained as stout as ever last season with and without Gay, as eventual Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol won one for the No-Stats All-Star crowd, taking home the hardware by moving his feet and shutting down screen and roll after screen and roll with his impressive speed, length, and smarts. Zach Randolph’s tunnel vision on offense was once again needed and appreciated, as the floor-bound but heady big man took off after Gay was sent elsewhere, and Mike Conley Jr. kept creeping and contributing.
The issue with that third round appearance is that, as much as we respect Memphis Basketball, luck played a significant role in the Grizzlies working until late May. Ex-Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro strangely decided to underutilize former-Clipper guard Eric Bledsoe, despite his longtime dominance over Conley, in Los Angeles’ first round defeat. And though Kevin Durant has enough to win a playoff series by his lonesome at this point, his Oklahoma City Thunder did not have enough to down the Grizzlies without Russell Westbrook, especially when the Grizzlies coaching staff locked in on the Thunder’s stagnant and predictable offense.
From there, a somewhat-surprising sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, and a relatively quiet offseason to follow. The team absolutely stole Kosta Koufos from the Denver Nuggets for Darrell Arthur (who hasn’t been the same since an Achilles tear in 2011), and took in what appeared to be a possible steal in second round pick Jamaal Franklin. The addition of Mike Miller for less than a million dollars would appear to be a steal as well, until you remember that Miller has missed 28, 41, 27 and 23 games over the last four seasons.
Anything Miller gives them – as he remains a formidable shooter, rebounder and passer when healthy – is gravy. The Grizzlies don’t need gravy, though. They need sides. They need something to round out the meal. And with Randolph aging, Gasol and Conley no consistent threat to shoot the team’s way to victory, and the diminished Tayshaun Prince looking like a shell of himself, the Grizzlies look like a team that may have to make the postseason with one of the ten worst offenses in the league.
That’s certainly feasible, considering the team’s defensive gifts, but the machinations needed to identify the points of emphasis while attempting to sneak in under the luxury tax (once the rookie signed and Miller was put in place, the Grizz are just a few million under while working in a small market) has left very little room for error.
That is to say, Randolph has to be on point, Gasol has to look to not so much extend his range, but focus on the most efficient parts of his inside-out game rather than floating, and Conley especially has to look to up his contributions and put the onus on the defense. Never a natural scorer, Conley’s length and smarts could suit him in the savior’s role offensively, but it will be a stretch. Relying too much on reserve Jerryd Bayless as the go-to pick me up can wear on a fan base.
Conley will have a friendlier face on the sideline this time around, as rookie coach Dave Joerger was brought into sustain the momentum from last season while utilizing the sort of players (Ed Davis, Jon Leuer) that the current front office traded for last season. The Grizzlies’ players didn’t exactly seem up in arms over former coach Lionel Hollins leaving the team, but the step from head assistant to top el jefe is a significant one, and Joerger will have all the eyes of the Scouting vs. [We Scout Extensively Too But People Still Think We’re Only Into] Stats debate watching intently.
At times, these defensive-minded Grizz won’t be a fun group to watch intently. Perhaps the best part about this particular crew is that they could absolutely not care less about whether you like watching them, or not.
Projected record: 50-32
Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine
While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.
Tune into the Grizzlies for … the pursuit of points.
We know the Grizzlies can clamp down. They’ve posted top-eight finishes in defensive efficiency each year since Tony Allen showed up, which probably isn’t a coincidence, and trailed only the Pacers in points allowed per possession last season, according to NBA.com. Allen and the duo of Mike Conley and Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol have been the Grizzlies’ schematic linchpins just as much as Allen and Zach Randolph have provided their trademark attitude; last year, the mix led Memphis past the Clippers and Thunder all the way to the Western Conference finals.
There, they faced two harsh realities:
2. It’s very hard to beat excellent opponents when you can’t shoot.
The Memphis offense that finished last season wasn’t quite the same as in years past -- it wasn’t all about Z-Bo on the block, featuring more actions stemming from Gasol at the elbows and Conley in the pick-and-roll, especially after the Rudy Gay trade -- but it was still built around stuff triggered inside the arc. The Spurs sold out to clog that stuff up, swarming Randolph, getting in passing lanes and challenging everything on the interior. They did so by completely ignoring Allen, Tayshaun Prince and Keyon Dooling outside, because they didn’t fear those guys making them pay from 3-point land. By series’ end, San Antonio was able to selectively sag off Conley and Jerryd Bayless, too, because while they were willing to shoot, they couldn’t connect, combining to go 8 for 31 from deep in the series.
Memphis had one real floor-spacer against the Spurs -- Quincy Pondexter, who paired really well with Conley and Gasol and earned praise (plus a high-profile date) by going 12-for-25 from 3 -- and with the interior gummed up, there wasn’t anything else for San Antonio to fear. For the Grizzlies to surpass last year’s finish -- or even match it in what looks like an even tougher West -- they need more shooting, spacing and offensive variety.
The burden of more falls to new head coach Dave Joerger, who replaces Lionel Hollins on the bench. He’s got some options, starting on the wing, where Prince's recent illness and ongoing absence has opened the door for Pondexter and sharpshooting addition Mike Miller, who’ve looked good. But they don’t want to overload the often-injured Miller early – he's there for May and June, not November and December. Plus, Prince will play when he gets back up to snuff; he's not being paid $7.2 million to sit and his defense has value, even if reputation often outstrips reality these days. Memphis must hope he can be the league-average deep shooter he was during the regular season rather than the bricklayer of the postseason.
Beyond the small forward slot, though, Joerger has inherited virtually the same rotation that ended the season, save for trade acquisition Kosta Koufos backing up Gasol and ex-Gator/Euroleague guard Nick Calathes backing up Conley. (Both should represent upgrades.) Allen, re-signed for four years, will still command big minutes and still won’t shoot from outside; Randolph and Gasol can hit from midrange, but won’t extend beyond that. Conley’s now a roughly average marksman; it’d be nice to see him improve when firing out of the pick-and-roll (just 30.4 percent on 46 such 3s attempted, per Synergy). Re-signed big man Jon Leuer looms as a potential pick-and-pop threat, but he’s looking up at Gasol, Randolph, Koufos and Ed Davis on the depth chart.
So how does Memphis wring efficiency out of the same mix? Increased speed is one approach; Joerger’s preaching getting up the floor and into sets more quickly, providing more time for post-ups, screens, cuts and other actions to help create cleaner looks. Improved shot selection’s another major plank – Joerger disdains “vomit basketball,” or chucking up a low-percentage shot early in the shot clock. A full season of redistributing Gay’s old touches to Conley, Gasol and Randolph, which paid post-trade dividends, should help, too. And if Calathes can provide even competent backup play, maybe Memphis can avoid free-fall when Conley hits the bench. They averaged 104.2 points per 100 possessions when he played and 96-per-100 when he sat last year, the difference between a top-10 offense and the league’s worst.
There’s no magic bullet; a significant step forward will require the Grizzlies being at least a little better in a lot of areas. Watching them work toward that goal should be interesting.
Honorable mentions: Buckets Pondexter; rookie Jamaal Franklin, whose athleticism, hustle and versatility could make him a people’s champ in the Grindhouse; the Grindhouse itself; Z-Bo getting rambunctious; Z-Bo being a good dude; most stuff Allen does.
Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion
NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.
Tony Allen has become a widely respected player, arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA. However, he’s also capable of serving as an offensive liability, a point proven remarkably often during the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs last spring. With Allen unable to take advantage of the defense essentially not guarding him, the Memphis offense floundered. Most teams don’t have the Spurs’ discipline, but it’s feasible that Allen will have to prove his offensive bona fides to earn his usual amount of playing time.
That’s not to say that he’s expendable or a looming disaster. Allen has been a massively important part of the Grizzlies’ success and just signed a new four-year deal this offseason. Yet it’s also something of a new era in Memphis. The Grizzlies are not going to overhaul their identity in the absence of Lionel Hollins, because (a) it works and (b) new head coach Dave Joerger served as lead architect of their first-rate defensive over the past few seasons. But there are new ideas and concepts at play in Memphis, particularly those focused on advanced analytics and efficiency. While these numbers can be measured in multiple ways, it’s fair to say that the grit-n-grind qualities displayed by the Grizzlies will not be taken on faith.
Allen, despite his elite defense, is the sort of player best appreciated qualitatively, not quantitatively. It’s possible that, if the Grizzlies hit a rough patch, he’ll be the player who seems surplus to requirements. He has something to prove, even if we already know him to be capable of so much.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Bobcats • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards